When Mark Dantonio took the podium at Big Ten media days in Chicago in late July, there was a different feel. No longer was the Michigan State coach talking about winning back-to-back conference championships or trying to get back to the College Football Playoffs.
Instead, the Spartans coach was facing questions about his team’s dismal 3-9 record in 2016 and the miserable off-season that followed.
The on-field issues were tough enough as the Spartans tumbled from a spot in the playoffs to one of the worst seasons in more than a decade while criminal charges and problems in the locker room led to hits to the roster and the team’s public image.
But just as Dantonio has done in the past, he made it clear that counting out Michigan State on the football field might not be the wisest choice.
“Are you a betting man?” Dantonio asked a reporter who wondered why anyone should believe the coach entering his 11th season could turn his program around.
“Why should I believe?” Dantonio continued. “Because I’m their coach. Because Spartans will … look beyond last year. Look back. Next question.”
While the question was legitimate, Dantonio has a point, too. Entering last season, the Spartans had won two of the previous three Big Ten titles, won 11 games five times while winning a Rose Bowl and reaching two straight New Year’s Day bowl games in the new era of playoff football.
However, it’s also easy to wonder if that time has passed.
Experience and depth are lacking on both sides of the ball, with running back and linebacker the only spots that seem solidified entering the season. The dismissal of wide receiver Donnie Corley and defensive ends Josh King and Auston Robertson loom large as each was expected to have breakout sophomore seasons in 2017; meanwhile, linebacker Jon Reschke left the program after missing most of 2016 because of an ankle injury.
The Spartans are counting on sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke to lead the offense after starting just two games last season while first-time starters litter the lineup at wide receiver, tight end and at both tackle spots.
On the other side of the ball, finding a pass rush after recording just 11 sacks last season is priority No. 1; solidifying a secondary that was picked apart in 2016 is also vital.
But the Spartans feel like they at least have the right mindset and team chemistry, something that was lacking last season.
“It’s not about wins, it’s just getting back that mentality we had and that mindset,” senior center Brian Allen said. “I feel like we’re in a pretty good spot going into camp and that will take care of a lot of the problems.”
The Spartans will get tested early with a visit from Notre Dame to close out non-conference play and will travel to Michigan two weeks later.
Getting to a bowl will be the goal, but inside the building, the Spartans are shooting for more. They know few believe Michigan State will be a factor in the Big Ten East, however. That’s just fine, they say.
“Just tune it out,” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “It doesn’t bother us. We know what to do and we know there is doubt behind us. We know what we have to do to be able to win games and prove the Spartans are back.”
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Brian Lewerke — He saw action in four games as a redshirt freshman and started twice, showing flashes, including helping the Spartans rally late in the loss to Michigan. However, he also broke his leg in that game and missed valuable experience late in the season. That didn’t stop coach Mark Dantonio from naming the former four-star recruit as his starter entering the spring, and it will up to Lewerke to prove his coach right after completing 31 of 57 passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns last season. The MSU offense has plenty of questions, and if Lewerke struggles, it could be a long season.
BREAKOUT STAR: WR Trishton Jackson — The speedy sophomore played nine games as a true freshman in 2016 and had five catches for 89 yards and a touchdown, but it was his performance in the spring that has people buzzing. The former high school quarterback is at a position that is desperate for a playmaker to break through; Jackson just might be that player who becomes the favorite target of Lewerke.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: CB Josiah Scott — Just a three-star recruit, Scott enrolled early at Michigan State in January and had eight tackles and an interception in the spring game. The 5-foot-10, 175-pounder has the inside track at a starting spot heading into the season-opener and has drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff, even being compared on several occasions by coach Mark Dantonio to former Spartan Darqueze Dennard. The former Jim Thorpe Award winner was the leader of MSU’s top-ranked defense in 2013 and became a first-round draft pick in the NFL.
–TE Matt Sokol, a junior who has been primarily a backup, will try to emerge from the shadow of the graduated Josiah Price, who is MSU’s all-time leader in touchdown catches for a tight end. He’ll likely start and have the chance to lock down the job, but keep an eye on redshirt freshman Noah Jones and true freshman Matt Dotson, a highly rated recruit who is having a solid preseason camp.
–LB Joe Bachie saw limited action as a true freshman but had seven tackles against Maryland as he stepped in for Riley Bullough, who was ejected for targeting. Bachie will be the starter now and will be directing the defense, but he will have the benefit of being flanked on the outside by senior Chris Frey and junior Andrew Dowell.
–LB Antjuan Simmons was one of Michigan State’s top recruits and is already running with the second team in preseason camp. He’ll see limited action behind Dowell, but he’s the type of dynamic athlete that will be hard to keep on the bench.
–DE Brandon Randle, who redshirted last season as an outside linebacker, is also working at end as MSU attempts to create a spark in the pass rush. He’s still raw with his hand in the dirt, but he’s been described as a “freak” of an athlete who could be a household name by the end of the season.
–There’s a long list of departures for Michigan State as WR Donnie Corley, DE Josh King, DE Auston Robertson and S Demetric Vance were all dismissed after being charged in separate sexual assault cases. LB Jon Reschke is also gone after an off-field incident while S Kenney Lyke and DB Kaleel Gaines transferred.
–DE Demetrius Cooper was taken off scholarship after an off-field incident but is working his way back. Barring any issues, he should be a starter by the opener.
–Minnesota will host Michigan State on October 14th.
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